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IS WHAT WAS is an experimental documentary film essay that began as a visual diary of a visit to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Berlin, where gay men were tortured and murdered by the Nazis. My friend Wilhelm Hein brought me to that place in 2007 where I first saw a Pink Triangle that was worn by one of my ancestors-in-spirit.
Around the same time I had begun to find vernacular photographs (snapshots) of Nazi soldiers that had been taken by their compatriots during the time of the Holocaust. These photographs were found in disassembled albums at flea markets and in private collections in America and Europe.
The contradiction between the Nazi persecution of gay men and the visual evidence in the photographs prompted an inquiry into the context in which sexual identity is formulated. This inquiry led directly to the pioneering work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825 – 1895).
Although Ulrichs’ ideas of same gender sexuality are steeped in 19th Century imagery, he was nonetheless the first to name it, describe it, and promote it in positive, constructive terms that included not only the sexual aspects of Queer life, but sought to find the whole person in the andere sexualitaet (the other sexuality).
Through the understanding of pride and power the contradiction in the photographs can be deciphered, and Ulrichs’ “Raethsel” (riddle) can be resolved: Queer Identity encompasses more than sexuality, and therein lays the threat to the power structures of oppression.
The film intercuts present day images of Sachsenhausen and Berlin created by photographer Sean Michael Kirk, with the vernacular photographs and moving images to create this experimental visual essay.